In the booklet to his new posthumous release Life Is Like a Song, the late Kenny Rogers is quoted: "Music is the greatest memory-maker you'll ever encounter. A song can lock you right into a memory for a lifetime." Rogers' own music, whether "The Gambler," "Through the Years," "Lady," "She Believes in Me," "You Decorated My Life," or "Islands in the Stream," certainly proves that adage. The Texas-born singer, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 81, blurred the lines between country and pop as he racked up 24 chart-toppers on the Billboard Country chart, eight on the AC survey, and two on the Hot 100 of nine top ten entries. His 1980 double album of Greatest Hits, released before such classics as "Through the Years," "We've Got Tonight," and "Islands in the Stream," was the only album by a country solo artist to top the Billboard 200 in the 1980s. It's a particular treat to hear "new" music from Rogers, roughly eight years after the final studio album of his lifetime, 2015's Once Again It's Christmas. At the heart of Life Is Like a Song is a selection of eight never-before-heard recordings spanning 2008-2011 during a relatively fallow period of recording; Rogers didn't release any full-length studio albums between 2006's Water and Bridges and 2011's The Love of God (which was expanded by UMe in 2022).
Rogers' gritty rasp is in full effect on the rousing opening track co-written by Kim Carnes. Rogers and Carne's history dated back to their shared time in The New Christy Minstrels; their duet on 1980's "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" reached the top five on the Pop, Country, and AC charts and 1984's "What About Me" hit No. 1 AC. Here, Rogers persuasively tears into Carnes' "Love Is a Drug," his voice supple and commanding. His tender side is in evidence on Laura McCall Torno and Earl Torno's bucolic "Catchin' Grasshoppers," sung for Rogers' twin sons with his widow Wanda Rogers, and the sweetly modest ballad "That's Love to Me."
Late in his career, Rogers recorded a number of pop standards for albums including Timepiece and Vote for Love. He tackles a number of recognizable songs on Life Is Like a Song, too. Rodger Penzabene, Barrett Strong, and Norman Whitfield's "I Wish It Would Rain," a 1968 hit for The Temptations, is one of the most sublimely sad songs in their catalogue - or anybody else's, for that matter. If the new arrangement here is rather nondescript, Rogers brings his gentle reassurance to the melancholy lyric and yearning melody. His vocal on Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" is warm and intimate, revealing a fragility and vulnerability not always in evidence throughout the album. Perhaps the most surprising of the covers is Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy, and Norman Gimbel's haunting "I Will Wait for You," from the film musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The atmospheric, lightly modernized arrangement doesn't distract from Rogers' faithful reading of the lyric.
Rogers' duets with Kim Carnes, Dottie West, Sheena Easton, and Dolly Parton are among the most beloved of his career; three duet partners are featured on the album including a return from Parton. Kim Keyes, who has performed with Reba McEntire, Amy Grant, Rascal Flatts, and Peter Cetera, joins Kenny on the wistful, melodic "Am I Too Late," matching her smoky vocals to his own. Rogers first recorded the Larry Keith/Jim Hurt song on his 1977 album Daytime Friends; his lived-in vocals lend it a different quality now. Australian singer-songwriter Jamie O'Neal is heard on the romantically soaring "Straight Into Love." Parton's "Tell Me That You Love Me" has been revisited and remixed from its debut on Kenny's 2009 Time Life box set The First 50 Years. Parton's ebullient spirit and the singers' obvious rapport shines through on the bright, midtempo duet. Another old friend, Lionel Richie, doesn't sing on the album but he is represented by "Goodbye," introduced by its songwriter on his 2002 album Encore. Kenny's recording is reprised, like the Parton duet, from The First 50 Years, but with its elegant simplicity and elegiac mood, it makes a fitting conclusion to Life Is Like a Song.
Two additional tracks are available only on the Target-exclusive CD and digital edition: a smoky, saxophone-flecked cover of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren's standard "At Last" (a No. 2 hit for Glenn Miller in 1942 that's perhaps best known today in Etta James' bluesy 1960 reinvention) and Buddy Hyatt's original song "Say Hello to Heaven," a song in heartbreaking country tradition in which Rogers sings as a man who's lost his wife in a car accident. It's the heaviest track on the album - perhaps one reason it was relegated to bonus track status.
As on so many modern albums, the production here (from a host of producers including Tony Brown, Brent Maher, Chuck Jacobs, and the team of Kyle Lehning and Viktor Krauss, among others) is polished and clean, lacking even the dollop of grit that Larry Butler or Lionel Richie added to Rogers' lushest recordings of years past. The sound is cohesive, though, largely due to the various producers' adherence throughout to a contemporary aesthetic. The main attraction is hearing Kenny Rogers' voice on new material, and Life Is Like a Song doesn't disappoint on that front. You gotta know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, and this is definitely not the time to fold 'em; one can only hope that the various periods of Rogers' extraordinary career will continue to be plumbed for outtakes and rarities to appear on future releases. It's not yet time to say "Goodbye" to the one and only Kenny Rogers.
Life Is Like a Song is available now from UMe: